|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Food Safety and Inspection Service
Remarks prepared for delivery by Susan Conley, Director, Food Safety Education and Communications Staff, Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, before the International Association of Milk, Food, and Environmental Sanitarians, Nashville, Tenn., August 18, 1998.
Good afternoon. Its a pleasure to be here today as part of a panel with such a provocative title as "Life in a Fish Bowl." At USDA, we certainly know about feeding frenzies. Over the past several years, we have dealt with a number of very visible food safety issuesissues that have made the front pages and have required us to put into practice risk communication strategies.
It is no secret that we are living in an information-oriented society. Consumers everywhere are bombarded with information from television, newspapers and magazines, the Internet, and from other people about the hazards associated with life.
And food safety is no exception. I generally point to the story on Salmonella and chicken aired by "60 Minutes" in the late 1980's as a moment of change in the current food safety dialogue. This story created an awareness of food safety and helped to shape the public debate.
After viewing that story, callers to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline expressed outrage that Salmonella bacteria might actually be on their chickenevidence that their food safety knowledge was limited. Since that time, E. coli and Campylobacter have become household words, and acronyms such as HACCP and BSE are part of the public dialogue.
Since that time, the media has had an important role in continuing the publics exposure to food safety issues. Newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, cartoons, and even novels have been emblazoned with food safety stories.
The result of this extensive public exposure to food safety issues is that, quite often the "outraged" consumer becomes a "hazard-weary" consumer. When you consider that these same consumers are bombarded with nutrition stories telling them to avoid certain foods, you can see why they might tune out messages related to food.
We hear from consumers every day on our Meat and Poultry Hotline who lament that they cant eat anything safely anymore. "There just isnt anything left to eat," they say, "so I may as well stop trying."
Its possible that this "hazard weary" phenomenon is an unavoidable side-effect of an open, democratic society that believes consumers should have a voice in public policy, a society that encourages public debate, and one where news is provided instantaneously.
But this does not mean we should provide less information. We have a responsibility to empower the public to protect itself from the public health hazard of foodborne illness. Rather, it means we should provide information in a way that minimizes this "hazard-weary" phenomenon. This presents a dilemma for food safety communicators. We want to motivate consumers to change unsafe food handling behaviors, and we must do so without scaring them to deathor worse, to inaction. At the same time, we know that many consumers must be "scared" into taking action.
We also know that most consumers get food safety information from the media. When asked in surveys how they get food safety information, consumers respond that television, radio, newspapers and magazines are the most common sources. So, it is obvious that we must enlist the media as allies in the communication process.
FSIS has had a lot of experience communicating with the public about food safety. For more than 25 years, we have operated an extensive consumer education program. Since 1985 we have operated the toll-free Meat and Poultry Hotline that reaches more than 150,000 consumers each year. We make available, through mailings and on our Web site, numerous consumer publications that address many food safety issues.
Our experience shows that consumers dont want less informationthey want more. But they want it to be clear, practical, and consistent. Today, I would like to share with you what we have learned about consumer education in general and in particular about how to make crisis communication as positive an experience as it can possibly be.
There are some basic key elements to effective communication and if those elements are employed consistently over time, perhaps dealing with a crisis situation when it arises will be easier for all concerned. The key elements are that the communications must first, and foremost, be science-based. The messages must provide consumers with tangible actions they can take themselves to reduce their risk. The messages must be practical and motivate consumers to action. They must also be consistent and when needed, targeted for a specific audience. Let me expand on those elements. Ill start with the control factor and lastly, fully discuss the most important, science-based messages.
Consumers want to feel in control of their health, and that means we must give them something tangible that they can do. Dr. Peter Sandman, a foremost expert on risk communication addressed this issue at a June 1997 conference devoted exclusively to developing innovative education programs that can change consumers unsafe food handling behaviors.
Sandman has long contended that people view voluntary risks as less threatening and outrageous than risks that are perceived as coerced or involuntary. He advises crisis communicators to look for ways to share control and suggests actions that people can take to reduce their own risk.
Also, we know this to be true when talking with Hotline callers. "What about the turkey or ground beef in my freezer ." they will ask. When provided with specific food handling information, often the concern is mitigated because people know what they need to do. During the Hudson Foods recall of frozen ground beef patties last year, for example, people who had eaten burgers were relived to know that thorough cooking destroys the O157H:7 pathogen.
Second, as communicators, we must present information in a manner that is practical to consumers. At USDA, we devote a lot of our resources toward determining what exactly is the average consumers reality. In other words, what can we realistically expect consumers to do? Without this information, we cant be sure that any consumer advice will be effective.
Focus groups are critical to this process. If we are going to get information about how to change peoples behavior and how to motivate them to do something different, we have to understand what their thinking is. For example, we recently needed to find out what are the barriers that limit consumers use of thermometers, because we know that using a food thermometer is the most accurate way to determine whether harmful bacteria have been destroyed. To get this information, we hired a research firm to conduct a series of focus groups to determine how well consumers would accept a food safety message that involves using a thermometer. We are now using this information to determine how best to convince consumers to use food thermometers and where we should focus our resources most cost-effectively.
Third, consumers must be motivated to action. Its not enough to tell someone to do somethingwe must give a good reason for them to take action. Information alone will not result in behavior change.
For example, our work with focus groups on thermometer use indicated that parents of young children are willing to change their food handling and preparation practices if it means protecting the health of their children, but are less likely to make these changes for themselves. We also learned in those same focus groups that consumers are more likely to use a thermometer if it means a better quality product, but safety was not a strong enough motivator. I think we can learn a lot from anti-smoking commercials that target teenagers. Instead of focusing on the health hazards, some commercials focus on how "uncool" smoking isa much stronger motivator than health to this age group.
Data from consumer behavior surveys conducted by the Food and Drug Administration also point to the complexities of finding ways to foster behavior change. Alan Levy, chief of FDAs Consumer Studies Branch put it this way: "In trying to educate consumers today about food safety, we are not dealing with na´ve consumers who have never heard about food safety problems. Instead, we are dealing with people who have considerable knowledge and experience with food who already employ familiar and tested coping strategies."
The data show that many informed people are not particularly concerned about food safety because they think they are expert enough in their own practices to avoid illness. This, of course, may not be the case.
Another complicating factor is that many consumers do not view food safety as a particular problem, or they see foodborne illness as something that happens elsewhere, to other people. And, when asked to make behavior changes, many people in focus group settings will discuss "the low odds" of becoming ill. Or, like some Hotline callers, theyll ask, "well, how sick will I get?"
Consistent messages are critical. The Fight BAC!TM consumer education campaign that is an outgrowth of the Partnership for Food Safety Education has used this technique successfully. The Partnerships membersFederal government, food industry, and consumer organizationsachieved consensus on four basic food safety messages:
These messages now form the basis of the Fight BAC!TM campaign and are used by all Partnership members and other "BAC Fighters" in their various educational materials. This ensures that the general public receives consistent messages from a variety of sources.
While consistent messages are important, specific groups may require specific, targeted messages. The same concept cook thoroughly, for example may be framed differently for parents of young children as compared with a message directed to boy scout campers. Research must be conducted to determine the most effective messages for each group.
Lastly, it is also vitally important that our messages are science-based, and this is becoming a lot more complicated in recent years. We are learning more about pathogens that cause foodborne illness.
Its not just Salmonella we have to know aboutits now Salmonella Enteritidis and Salmonella Typhimurium. Its not just E. coliits E. coli O157:H7. As more pathogens emerge, and we learn more about the ones already here, the dialogue becomes more and more technical.
We recently found out just how complicated consumer advice can get when we re-evaluated our advice to consumers on how to safely prepare hamburgers. FSIS has always advised consumers, for optimal safety, to use a thermometer to determine the doneness of meat and poultry products. For hamburgers, because few people actually use thermometers to test doneness, this advice in the past was supplemented with a recommendation to check the internal color of the patties and to cook hamburgers until no longer pink.
However, in recent years, this color-based advice has been subjected to close scrutiny as a result of research indicating that the color of cooked ground meat can vary considerably. In particular, a study by Kansas State University found that a sufficient number of patties were turning brown well before they reached the safe temperature of 160 degrees F. to make color an unreliable indicator of safety.
This past year, recognizing that this issue needed to be further explored and understood, FSIS worked with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to conduct a study to gather further information on the premature browning phenomenon. The study confirmed that the color of cooked ground beef is not a reliable indicator that a safe temperature has been reached. Over 25 percent of ground beef patties tested turned brown before reaching 160 degrees F. Also, at 160 degrees F., a significant number of patties still showed signs of pink.
We also applied data from a risk assessment that indicated that the relative risk increases for hamburgers judged as "done" by visual browning rather than by the use of a food thermometer.
A third piece of information we used were case-control studies from the FoodNet active surveillance system for foodborne illness. These data indicate that consumption of pink hamburgers appears to be a strong risk factor for sporadic infection from E. coli O157: H7.
In addition, we conducted focus group research, which verified that very few people are currently using thermometers to check the safety of hamburgers. However, the report did conclude that, over time and with a concerted effort, it should be possible to increase the use of food thermometers.
Our decision, with all of these data in hand, is to urge consumers to use a food thermometer to ensure that hamburgers are cooked to a high enough temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria that may be present. But because many consumers are not now using a food thermometer, we added the caveat that when a thermometer has not been used, do not consume a hamburger that is pink or red in the middle. At the same time, we have begun a campaign to encourage thermometer use among consumers.
This is a good example of the complexity of communication issues, because we are dealing with science and human behavior concurrently. And it is typical of the risk management decisions we will have to make in the future based on quantitative risk assessments and other data. The consumer message must be scientifically valid, but educators know it must be practical as well. The challenge is to weigh these factors appropriately.
Its important with any type of communication to have messages that meet the criteria I just mentionedthey must be based in science, yet practical, they must give consumers something tangible to do to allow them to feel in control, they must be consistent and they must be targeted.
But what additional things must we consider in a crisis situation? What can we as educators and communicators do in the face of a specific food safety crisis?
One important thing is to be proactive. Have information out there so that when a crisis hits, the public already has a certain level of knowledge. Ideally, a crisis is a time to reinforce, not teach, safe handling practices. This is also a time to communicate what is being done by government and industry to address food safety problems and to discuss the concept that all have a role to play in food safety. By pro-actively communicating with the community, when a crisis does hit, hopefully, the news will fall on informed ears. The community will be able to some extent to evaluate and judge the crisis information they are receiving. One way to do this is to work with the media and stakeholders day-in and day-out by providing background information. Be a source before you are a subject.
A second important thing is to have a network in place through which to communicate. This is not the time to start establishing contactsthis is the time to use them. Over the past few years, government has been doing a better job of networking with other agencies at Federal, State and local level so that it can more quickly respond to and investigate outbreaks of foodborne illness. This is what we strive to do in the communications area as well. FSIS in recent years has instituted an extensive constituent affairs program with regular communications channels to our stakeholders.
Third, because food safety issues are becoming more and more complicated, it is helpful to have public health and science people available to answer questions. It is also important to work with these experts ahead of time so you have resources that know how to communicate at the appropriate level.
You should also have a generic crisis communications plan developed so that when the crisis does hit, you are one step ahead of the game.
Have a communications plan in place that includes:
When a crisis hits put the plan into action. Pull your team together to plan a course of action and gather information. Appoint a spokesperson. Its important to acknowledge the situation and to be available to address concerns, even before all the facts are gathered. Use your established communications system or network and work with the media covering the story.
And then, most importantly, fix the problem, where possible. For example, USDA took immediate action by ordering industry to end the practice of repackaging eggs after a Dateline television show aired that caused a public outcry over the practice. And, in many ways, implementing HACCP is a good example of working to address the problem of foodborne pathogens.
In closing, we will always be living in a fishbowl and there will always be a crisis of one type or another. But there are things we can do to turn that feeding frenzy into an opportunity to better educate the public about foodborne illness and how consumers can protect themselves.
For Further Information
FSIS Food Safety Education and Communications Staff
Public Outreach and Communications
Phone: (202) 720-9352
Fax: (202) 720-9063
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